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Israel blames Syria for suicide bombing
Updated: 2005-02-27 08:36

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Saturday blamed Syria and a Palestinian militant group based there for a suicide bombing that killed four Israelis outside a Tel Aviv nightclub and shattered an informal truce, prompting him to freeze plans to hand over security responsibilities in the West Bank. Syria denied the charges.

An Israeli security guard stands amid the debris, as onlookers stand behind a police barricade, at the site of the previous evening's suicide bombing attack in front of a nightclub in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2005. [Reuters]

The suicide bombing, which broke a two-week period of relative calm, has threatened to derail the informal Feb. 8 cease-fire declaration by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. It also could spark new tensions between Israel and Syria.

Abbas angrily accused a "third party" of orchestrating Friday's attack to sabotage the Mideast peace process, and his security officials said the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, was involved.

In Beirut, Hezbollah, denied the accusations, and Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group with members in Lebanon and Syria, claimed responsibility from the Lebanese capital, reversing initial denials by its members in the Palestinian territories.

The conflicting accounts created a rare sense of mystery around the beachfront attack.

In the past, militant groups have been quick to praise their members for carrying out deadly bombings. But Islamic Jihad waited nearly 24 hours to issue its claim for the attack late Friday as dozens of young Israelis waited outside the nightclub. The delay raised speculation among Palestinian officials that Islamic Jihad was acting on behalf of Hezbollah.

If the bombing had been planned and inspired by militants in the Palestinian territory, Abbas would be under tremendous pressure to crack down. But since it looked as if the bombing was linked to Islamic Jihad in Syria, and perhaps inspired by Hezbollah, Israel was likely to give him more leeway.

Mofaz announced Israel's response to the bombing after meeting with senior security commanders late Saturday in Tel Aviv.

"The defense minister ruled that Israel sees Syria and the Islamic Jihad movement are those standing behind the murderous attack in Tel Aviv," a statement from Mofaz's office said.

Israel repeatedly has demanded that Syria close the headquarters of Palestinian militant groups in Damascus and end its support for other militant organizations.

Israeli security officials said there were no immediate plans to attack Syria. Instead, the country will launch a diplomatic effort in hopes of winning U.N. condemnation of Syria. In 2003, Israeli warplanes bombed an Islamic Jihad base in Syria in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed 19 people at a restaurant.

Syria quickly rejected the charges.

Syria "had nothing to do with the Tel Aviv operation and that this (Islamic Jihad) movement's office is closed in Syria," a foreign ministry official in Damascus told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Syria has come under past U.S. pressure to stop supporting Palestinian militant groups and to close their offices. It also faces calls to withdraw troops from Lebanon amid accusations it was behind a massive bombing on Feb. 14 that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 16 other people.

Israeli security officials said they might resume assassinating Islamic Jihad leaders in the Palestinian territories because the informal truce no longer applied to them.

Such a move, which Israel recently agreed to halt as part of a reinvigorated peace process after the death of Yasser Arafat and the election of Abbas, would likely mean the end of the cease-fire.

In a further strain on the cease-fire, Mofaz froze plans to withdraw troops from five West Bank towns and hand over security responsibilities to the Palestinians. The handover was among the most significant gestures by Israel after the carefully crafted cease-fire agreement on Feb. 8.

In the West Bank, Abbas met earlier Saturday with security officials and Cabinet ministers to discuss a response to the attack, which he condemned as "sabotage." He also reiterated his support for the truce and said he was exchanging information with Israel, the United States and Europe.

"We believe there is a third party that wants to sabotage this process, and to harm our people and our national goals," Abbas said. "We will not hesitate to track them down and bring them to justice and punish them."

Abbas didn't elaborate on the third party, but Palestinian officials said he was referring to Hezbollah. Security officials have said the guerrilla group is the biggest threat to the cease-fire, with hundreds of gunmen from various Palestinian militant groups on its payroll.

Abbas said the major Palestinian militant groups — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades — had all condemned the attack. But late Saturday, Islamic Jihad, which is based in Syria, posted an announcement on its Web site claiming responsibility.

In a phone call from Lebanon, an official from the Syria-based leadership of the Islamic Jihad militant group also claimed responsibility for the bombing.

A senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, disputed the claim, saying Hezbollah was responsible for arming the bomber and giving the orders for the attack. He also accused Hezbollah of persuading Islamic Jihad to accept responsibility to deflect attention.

The bomber was identified as Abdullah Badran, 21, a university student from a village near the West Bank town of Tulkarem. His parents said he was a devout Muslim but had no history of militant activity.

Palestinian police have arrested two suspects with ties to Islamic Jihad and more arrests were expected.

Security officials had said they were investigating whether Badran was recruited by local militants at the behest of Hezbollah. Often, there is overlap and coordination between militant groups.

Israeli forces also arrested two of the bomber's brothers and four neighbors in his home village, including the local mosque preacher. The alleged driver who transported the bomber was also arrested.

In contrast to the dozens of previous suicide bombings, no celebrations were held in the West Bank on Saturday and militant groups didn't hang the customary posters of congratulations at the bomber's home. Many residents expressed anger.

"If Hezbollah was behind this attack, I as a Palestinian tell them, 'Deal with your own problems and stay out of ours,'" said Akram Abu Sbaa, 38, a resident of the West Bank town of Jenin.

The attack also drew condemnations from the international community. In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms" and said it is essential that Palestinian leaders take "immediate, credible steps" to find those responsible.

Israel and the United States said Abbas has to act quickly and forcefully — despite his long-standing reluctance to confront militants — if he wants to rescue a fragile Mideast truce.

"We believe his rhetoric," said Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "But at the same time, regarding practical actions against terrorism, nothing has been done."

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